In The Human Condition, Arendt claims that Aristotle says that sufficiently advanced technology would mean that the craftsman wouldn't require assistants but concedes that household slaves could never be dispensed with.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd edition, p122 (emphasis mine):

Aristotle once imagined what has long since become a reality, namely that "every tool could perform its own work when ordered [...]. Then "the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them." This he goes on to say, would indeed mean that the craftsman would no longer need human assistants, but it would not mean that household slaves could be dispensed with.

Around this section, Arendt references Aristotle Politics 1253b30 - 1254a18. But my reading of Aristotle contradicts Arendt.

Aristotle, Politics, C.D.C. Reeve translation, p6 [1253b33] (emphasis mine):

For if each instrument could perform its own function on command or by anticipating instructions, and if [...] shuttles wove cloth by themselves, and plectra played the lyre, an architectonic craftsman would not need assistants and masters would not need slaves.

My reading of Aristotle here is that household slaves could indeed be done away with if the technology allowed. It seems like Arendt is claiming Aristotle says the opposite of what he actually says.

Does Aristotle clarify his position somewhere else that I haven't found yet? Is my interpretation of Aristotle incorrect? Is there some other way to resolve this apparent contradiction?

1 Answer 1


There is no need to look somewhere else for an explanation. Arendt's sentence right after the OP boldfaced passage is:"For slaves are not instruments of making things or of production, but of living, which constantly consumes their services". Even self-working tools would not cancel that need. And it reflects what Aristotle says right after the OP quote as well, in 1254a that Arendt also cites, and further:

"Now the tools mentioned are instruments of production, whereas an article of property is an instrument of action; for from a shuttle we get something else beside the mere use of the shuttle, but from a garment or a bed we get only their use. And also inasmuch as there is a difference in kind between production and action, and both need tools, it follows that those tools also must possess the same difference. But life is doing things, not making things; hence the slave is an assistant in the class of instruments of action.

[...] But we must next consider whether or not anyone exists who is by nature of this character, and whether it is advantageous and just for anyone to be a slave, or whether on the contrary all slavery is against nature. And it is not difficult either to discern the answer by theory or to learn it empirically. Authority and subordination are conditions not only inevitable but also expedient; in some cases things are marked out from the moment of birth to rule or to be ruled."

[...] "therefore all men that differ as widely as the soul does from the body and the human being from the lower animal (and this is the condition of those whose function is the use of the body and from whom this is the best that is forthcoming) these are by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is advantageous, inasmuch as it is advantageous to the subject things already mentioned. For he is by nature a slave who is capable of belonging to another (and that is why he does so belong), and who participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it; for the animals other than man are subservient not to reason, by apprehending it, but to feelings. And also the usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals; bodily service for the necessities of life is forthcoming from both, from slaves and from domestic animals alike."

And so household slaves are "marked out from the moment of birth" and are out of luck. Or rather they are in luck (to become slaves) because for them "to be governed by this kind of authority is advantageous" and "usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals", as instruments of action, of living.

  • Yes, I had already read these sections of Aristotle of Arendt. I can't see how it answers the question. Aristotle is distinguishing between types of tools, those for action and those for production. He's saying that slaves are an instrument of action. I can't see how any of this says what Arendt claims, that fully automated tools of action still couldn't replace a slave. Oct 24, 2021 at 1:17
  • @RisingMaverick That is not what it says, at least not on Arendt's reading of Aristotle. It says that tools of action/living cannot be automated, unlike tools of production, and hence the need for household slaves can never go away:"the process of life that requires laboring is an endless activity and the only "instrument" equal to it is a perpetuum mobile."
    – Conifold
    Oct 24, 2021 at 4:44
  • That just brings me back to my question. How can Arendt claim that Aristotle says this, when on my reading, he says the opposite? Oct 25, 2021 at 2:09
  • @RisingMaverick Because he does. Right after "masters would not need slaves" he qualifies that replaceable tools spoken of were only tools of production, that what was said does not apply to tools of action, and says that slaves are the latter. What is that for on your reading? Then we have a long digression on how slavery is the natural order of things that benefits all involved. Why bother if slaves are merely artifacts of yet imperfect technology to be dispensed with in due course? Frankly, I find Arendt's reading far more plausible than yours.
    – Conifold
    Oct 25, 2021 at 8:49
  • It doesn't matter what way I look at it, I just can't interpret what Aristotle says as "what I just said only applies to tools of production". If that's what he meant, then the sentence at the beginning of the paragraph directly contradicts the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, in a way that doesn't make sense. In the Reeve translation, it's even clearer that this is not what Aristotle meant. The sentence starts "Now, what are commonly said to be instruments are instruments for production..." rather than the "Now the tools mentioned are instruments of production" that you had. Oct 25, 2021 at 9:24

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